Monday 1 August 2022

The Endless Immensity of the Sea - music for National Marine Week 2022

I have a music project that I've been working on for several years, producing mostly instrumental tracks inspired by nature, space, sometimes even by cycling. As a marine biologist, I take a lot of inspiration from the deep blue parts of our one and only home planet Earth. This week (actually being run over two weeks to make use of the differing tide times around the UK) is the UK's Wildlife Trusts' National Marine Week, encouraging awareness and celebration of our fantastic marine environment and its amazingly diverse wildlife.

It seemed an ideal opportunity for me to pull together, into a single playlist, all the music I've produced over the years that has been inspired by the sea, and the wildlife and people in and upon it, and even the exciting possibility of life under the ice on moons of Saturn and Jupiter, out there in the Solar System.

You can listen to the playlist on my Soundcloud site:

Click on the above image or HERE to listen to the playlist.

Monday 25 July 2022

Tiger Sharks (Dick's tale)

As I’ve restarted my blog (after an absence  of six years) with a shark-related post, here’s another one regarding a piece of music I produced, based around an old sailor's account of an attack by tiger sharks. 

I produced this track about four years ago, and shared it on my Soundcloud site, but my blog was on hold at the time.

On the sound file sharing site Freesound, I came across a remarkable recording of an old sailor telling the tale of the day his captain fell overboard from his sailing ship in the South China Sea ( ). 

I contacted the Freesound member who had shared it (dinger154), asking about the sailor and his accent. Dinger 154 replied:

"All the old English sailors had a generic accent that never did identify exactly where they came from. They picked it up over the years of just speaking to each other, similar thing happened in the Army. This old boy's name was Dick. I met him in a pub in Portsmouth 40 years ago when he must have been about 80 years old. One of the last old proper sailors. He had skin burned mahogany colour by the sun and more wrinkles than your grandma."

I found the story incredibly evocative and compelling, and produced this tune incorporating Dick's tale.

No doubt Dick is long gone (he'd be maybe 120 by now) and I am very grateful to dinger154 for sharing his old recording (with Creative Commons 0 licence) and preserving Dick's voice and story for posterity.

My tune also incorporates a recording of gulls shared by another Freesound member, acclivity, ( under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) Licence) and another by laurent, of the creaking rope of a moored boat ( also shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) Licence). The Chinese-sounding instrument is a simulated pipa playing a Japanese scale, that I played and recorded through Garageband.

The location that Dick mentions is Zamboanga in the Philippines. I love the way his old sailor's voice pronounces it as 'Zambawanger'.

The story's pretty grim but life was hard before the mast, and full of dangers!

Saturday 23 July 2022

The Hunting of the Shark, subtitled An Agony in 2 Fits: Fit The First*


"We have sailed many months, we have sailed many weeks,
(Four weeks to the month you may mark),
But never as yet ('tis your Captain who speaks)
Have we caught the least glimpse of a Snark!"
(From: 'The Hunting of the Snark' by Lewis Carroll)

Where to begin? Perhaps in the words of 'The Sound of Music':

'Let's start at the very beginning, A very good place to start...'

I have never seen a Basking Shark.

I realise I'm not alone in that gap in my experience. After all, the Basking Shark, although the second largest fish and shark species on the planet (after the Whale Shark), is a sea-living giant, often spending winter months offshore or in deeper waters. Even when it comes closer to Britain and Ireland's coasts in summer time, it is usually off less populated parts of our west coasts. But it does sometimes come REALLY close inshore. With a typical adult basking shark reaching 7.9 metres in length (that's 26 feet in old money - longer than four six-foot-tall fridges laid end-to-end!) and the largest being over 12 metres, plus a stonking great big dorsal fin sticking up out of its back, people do often see them as they cruise slowly around, feeding at the surface of the sea. Top spotting locations around the British coast are Devon and Cornwall, around the Isle of Man and up and down the west coast of Scotland, particularly around the Inner Hebrides. But I've never seen one.

A bit of background basking shark biology follows: Basking sharks (given the scientific name Cetorhinus maximus) are found all around the world, generally in the temperate oceans. They, like Whale Sharks and only one other species of shark (the Megamouth Shark), are filter feeders that eat zooplankton, other invertebrates and very small fish. They cruise slowly through denser patches of plankton with their huge mouth open, forcing seawater out through their gills and trapping their tiny prey on specialised structures on their gills, before swallowing them. Their name comes from their habit of swimming slowly at the sea's surface, feeding as they go, thus looking like they are basking in the sun. Of the many other names basking sharks have been given, the  commonly used name ‘sun-fish’ also reflects this habit of surface feeding in sunny, calm weather.

Basking shark filter-feeding near the surface
(Photo via <a href="">Good Free Photos</a>)

Basking sharks have a giant liver, running the length of their body, weighing up to 25% of body weight and packed with rich fish oil. For an average adult basking shark, weighing about 4 and a half tons, that makes for a liver weighing over one ton! This huge weight and volume of oil in the body had led to their historical exploitation through harpoon-based (and other) fisheries, as well as for their skin, meat and fins. The oil was largely used for lighting lamps (not unlike the history of whaling for whale oil). The resultant historical killing has led to significant declines in the populations of these slow-growing, slow-maturing, long-lived, gentle, ocean giants.

Globally, the World Conservation Union, the IUCN, has listed the basking shark as an Endangered species since 2018. Basking sharks are still at risk globally because of the value of their fins to shark-fin fisheries (surely one of the most unsustainable catches of all time), for which they are directly targeted. Quoting a BBC article on basking sharks, they are 'also at risk of propeller damage from collision with boats and of entanglement in fishing gear, particularly the lines for static gear such as pots and creels for catching lobsters and crabs'. Concern over their status in Great Britain led to their legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (in 2000, although basking sharks were first named as a protected species on the Isle of Man under the Manx 1990 Wildlife Act).

Truly one of the most under-appreciated wonders of the seas around these Sceptr'd Isles.

The thing is, I've never seen one. So what? Well, the odds ought really to be skewed in my favour for incidental encounters, and not just on account of their enormous size. I am, by training, a marine biologist who grew up, studied, and have subsequently worked my whole career in Scotland; I've specialised in marine fish ecology; I've travelled extensively on Scotland's west coast and to its islands on the ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne, for work and pleasure; I've spent survey time on boats and on the coast up and down the west coast and on the Hebridean and northern islands; I even travelled right around the north, west and south coasts of Ireland one summer. Every chance I get, I will swim in the sea (for fun).

And I've never run across a basking shark. In fact, I keep missing them. Sometimes by minutes.

Earliest ‘encounter’

I think the first time I came across the basking shark was on television sometime in the 1970s, in the 1969 film 'Ring of Bright Water', starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. 'Ring of Bright Water' is a story about a Londoner and his pet otter living on the Scottish coast. Although the story is fictional, it is is adapted from the 1960 autobiographical book of the same name by British naturalist and author Gavin Maxwell. In his attempt to find food for his ever-hungry otter, the hero harpoons a basking shark, cuts it up and freezes it (only to find that the otter won't touch it). In fact, this storyline echoes Maxwell's actual failed attempt of trying to establish a basking shark fishery based on the Isle of Soay (which he had purchased) near Skye between 1945 and 1948. The experience was described subsequently in his 1952 book: 'Harpoon At A Venture'.

In the film there is actual footage of a basking shark (apparently filmed in the Firth of Lorne), purportedly swimming under the hero's rowing boat.

Screenshot of basking shark from the film 'Ring of Bright Water'

He returns later and harpoons a basking shark, kills it and cuts it up on the beach, before transferring it to an old freezer that he has bought. As a real, dead basking shark was shown (see below) being cut up on the shore (following a close-up shot of a harpoon in a real basking shark), I can only assume it was harpooned and killed for the film company by one of the existing Scottish basking shark fishermen of the time. I remember the sense of unfairness I felt in my boyhood breast at the time about the shark being killed and its flesh wasted for nothing (although a fictional account, a real shark was clearly killed).

Cutting up the poor bloody shark in 'Ring of Bright Water'
(Screenshots from the film)

The tagging of the shark

I actually got my first potential professional involvement in basking sharks off to a nearly-flying start. In 1996, I was working for Scotland's statutory nature conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), in the marine and coastal conservation section. On the departure of a colleague, I was asked to take over the role of SNH project manager for a proposed project that hadn't begun, namely a collaboration with two academics at Durham University, Drs Mark O'Connell and Tim Thom, to attempt tracking of basking sharks with satellite tags. SNH provided funding to purchase four satellite tags and the darts that would allow them to be attached to basking sharks, with the aim spending an experimental season finding out more about the behaviour and movements of the sharks around the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. As well as the tagging equipment, access was purchased, at an academic discount rate, to the Argos satellite run from Toulouse in France. My involvement, which commenced with a visit to Durham to meet Mark and Tim in early 1996, promptly ceased when I changed jobs and agencies in July 1996, moving on to the new Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and the project management role passed to one of my friends back in the SNH marine and coastal section. The subsequent field season around Arran in the summer of 1997 is well-described in detail in the lovely 2021 book: 'A Sea Monster's Tale: In search of the basking shark' by Colin Speedie.

Following on from pioneering Scottish basking shark tracking studies by Dr 'Monty' Priede from the Aberdeen Fisheries Laboratory some 14 years earlier, the Durham University/SNH collaboration was only the second attempt to track Scotland's basking sharks. Had I still be employed by SNH in 1997 and managing the contract, there is a great chance that I would have secured my first sightings of basking sharks then; the project used a network of volunteers (mostly Scottish Wildlife Trust members, and mostly based on headlands and promontories) to make 29 shark sightings that summer. The researchers made a total of five approaches by boat to attempt to tag basking sharks and, although there was success at attaching the tags to two sharks, there were problems with the equipment that meant that, ultimately little was learned about the behaviour of the sharks. Useful lessons were learned, though, about the process of approaching and tagging basking sharks.

I was pleased to discover that, many years later, Scottish Natural Heritage was involved in studies that generated much improved understanding of basking shark behaviour. Since 2012, SNH (now called Nature Scot) has been working with the University of Exeter to understand more about basking shark habitat use and behaviour using a variety of tagging technologies. A total of 61 satellite tags have been deployed on basking sharks, as part of the Nature Scot and University of Exeter partnership project to investigate their movements and results were published in Nature Scot's 2016 Research Report, as well as peer-reviewed scientific papers. Nature Scot was also involved in an international collaboration in 2019, using REMUS SharkCam - a sophisticated Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed, built and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA, which generated some amazing underwater film of basking sharks swimming near the Isles of Coll and Tiree. All of the SNH/Nature Scot basking shark work since 2012 is available here.

Near misses

I think the first time I actually realised that I'd missed a great opportunity to see basking sharks was when my wife and I took our old campervan on the CalMac ferry to the Inner Hebridean islands of Coll and Tiree. This is when I first realised that the waters around these islands in summer are a real hotspot for basking sharks. On our first day on Coll, we visited the Post Office and, while Olivia was in buying postcards and stamps, I chatted in the warm summer sun to the Post Mistress's husband. He told me, unprompted, that there had been 37 basking sharks swimming in the harbour bay the week before. Missed by a week or so. Needless to say, the further pleasant, sunny week we spent on Coll and Tiree, and two further ferry trips, resulted in no shark sightings.

The Isle of Coll Post Office

On another campervan trip, this time in the 
Outer Hebrides, when we travelled in two gloriously sunny, calm and warm weeks from Vatersay in the south, to Lewis in the north, we were on the Barra to Eriskay ferry, and decided to sit on the top deck, leaving our wee terrier Ella in the van down on the vehicle deck. About halfway across, I went down to check on the dog and missed a basking shark which had surfaced briefly and was spotted by my wife (who is also a marine biologist). This one, I missed by about a minute. I should have stayed where I was.

The damned dog was fine. 

On a two week campervan holiday when we travelled around the Irish north-east, north, west and south coasts in high summer, no basking sharks were seen. On Achill Island, however, we took a trip out to the west end, to be informed at the beautiful bay at Keem, that there had been a basking shark swimming around the bay that morning.

But the most frustrating miss was surely on a campervan trip to northwest Scotland, when we were engaged on a seaweed survey for the plant charity, Plantlife Scotland. We were staying one evening in the campsite at the really beautiful Clachtoll Beach, and I donned my wetsuit and went for a late evening swim in the bay, with a beautiful sunset developing on the western horizon. After a great 20 minute swim, I went to the shower block and showered. As I came out of the shower block, a fellow camper approached me from the beach and said highly excitedly, in German-accented English: ‘Did you see the basking shark?’

Me: ???

‘Yes, it swam into the bay just now and swam around. It was wonderful. Amazing!’ It had appeared about five minutes after I got out and went for a shower. My fellow camper had been sitting on the promontory on the right of the above photo and had a great view of the shark. I’m very happy for him.

Clachtoll Bay, Sutherland, Highland Council ((c) Google Earth)

I used to jest that I thought basking sharks were just made up, a work of fiction. My failure to see them, a bit of a standing joke between my wife and me. But, with a fair wind, some sun and a bit of luck, I’m hopeful of a change in my fortunes on that front. My family have given me an amazing gift, in late August, of a three day visit on a boat based on the Isle of Coll, during peak basking shark season, to attempt the spotting of, and potentially swimming with, basking sharks. I’ll be joining a trip with Basking Shark Scotland (an eco-tourism business specialising in marine wildlife watching), and keeping everything crossed, with the aim of breaking my basking shark duck.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
(From: 'The Hunting of the Snark' by Lewis Carroll)

I will find out soon enough if the sea around the Isle of Coll is indeed 'just the place' for a Shark - you'll have to await Fit The Second to find out! There are no guarantees. The trip will be great whatever happens, but we may see basking sharks, we may not. It’s such a beautiful area, with stunning seascapes and beaches, and packed with marine and island wildlife that, whatever happens, it will be an amazing experience and a real privilege to be there. There might be sharks and there might not. Watch this space…

[*Fit The First: in case you are wondering about this unusual phrase, I was tickled to discover that Lewis Carroll had made use of an archaic literary phrase for verses or chapters, namely ‘Fits’, in his poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. I first encountered this use of ‘Fit’ in Douglas Adams’ adaptation of his books, ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, for BBC radio. Each weekly episode was named as Fit The First, Fit The Second, etc. I’d always thought that this was just a conceit of his own but was delighted to learn, in reading around for this blog post, that he actually did it as a tribute to Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’! I hope my Fit The Second, to follow my Coll trip, will not be in the nature of the agonies of The Hunting of the Snark!]

Thursday 30 June 2016

A century on from the Battle of the Somme - Wull Grant and one Ayrshire man's story

It's been quite a while since I posted in my blog but this seems a very appropriate time to do so.

One hundred years ago tomorrow, the first day of July 1916, the upper reaches of the River Somme in northern France saw the start of the Battle of the Somme. Also known as the ‘Somme Offensive’, the armies of the French and British Empires fought from the 1st  of July for the next 141 days against the army of the German Empire. It was to be the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front and, with more than a million men wounded or killed, was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

British artillery at the Battle of the Somme

There are not many examples of the voices of ordinary soldiers from that hellish event, considering how many soldiers were involved. In an article from Thursday 8th March 2007, the Guardian newspaper reported on the auction of the diary and photographs of Walter Hutchinson, a stretcher-bearer in the 10th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment, who wrote the diary during the first three weeks of the battle. The article began with the following statement:

“For almost a century, poets and historians have struggled to describe the carnage of July 1 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. Personal tales are easily lost amid the colossal death toll of the first day of the battle of the Somme. Of the 120,000 British soldiers who scrambled out of the trenches to march into a wall of fire, almost 20,000 died.”

The article then goes on to describe the rare personal account from an ordinary soldier, as described by Hutchinson in his diary, and I recommend that you read the article here

Mention of personal stories from ordinary soldiers who fought in the trenches at the Somme resonate with me for reasons I will explain. Involvement in such horror must leave an indelible mark on a survivor. My own paternal Great Grandfather fought in World War One in a Scottish regiment at the hell-hole that was Gallipoli and, following a leg wound, was sent home and survived the First World War. My father said that his grandfather never talked about his war experience, and who can blame him? His injury maybe meant, though, that he missed being deployed to France and maybe to the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was, as stated above, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The mental and physical effects on survivors must have been unimaginably horrible, severe and long-lasting – one British officer, Captain Leeham, talking about the first day of the battle, in 'Tommy Goes to War', said:

“The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.”

I never met any survivors from the Somme myself but, in our family, my father talked often, during our childhood and beyond, of an old soldier friend of his who had been sent to the Somme, survived and returned home to Ayrshire in the west of Scotland, a man whom he had befriended, ironically enough, following his own return to Scotland after his own National Service in 1958.

Most of my immediate family hails from Ayrshire, and my father, sister and I were all born in Kilwinning. Before his period of National Service (in Centurion tank regiments in Germany as a gunner/ radio operator), Dad had worked on the Montgreenan estate (owned then by Lord Weir of Weir Pumps in Glasgow) near Kilwinning as an assistant gamekeeper, described as an under-keeper. By all accounts, he was great at the job, his boss, a lovely, calm, old gentleman of a gamekeeper called Donald Campbell, describing him as the best underkeeper he’d ever worked with. The local hostelry near the estate where he and his friends used to go for a pint or two after work or at the weekend was the Torranyard Inn (pictured below today in its current guise as a curry house). It was there he got to know an elderly, retired coal miner called William Grant, or Wull Grant, as he was known.

Torranyard Inn

Wull lived upstairs at the Torranyard Inn, in a room with no running water and no electricity, lit at night by paraffin lamps and with only an outside water closet (toilet). Dad said Wull had silken white hair and skin like a baby. But his skin was marked with blue where coal dust had been sealed into injuries picked up during his time in the mines. He wore a muffler (a woollen scarf) and an old light-checked Tweed suit and used to sit outside the back door of the pub in his bunnet (flat cap) with an old pair of binoculars. I have no doubt that this was probably what got Dad talking with him, as Dad was also a keen birdwatcher and they probably found common ground there. He was apparently one for the pithy phrase. He used to say (from no doubt bitter experience),"Hunger's guid [good] kitchen" and, on hearing a young man at the bar holding forth that '"Money isn't everything", Wull apparently replied "Aye son, but it's a handy thing to have when you go to buy a loaf"! That latter one passed into our family treasure trove of sayings, to be oft-repeated. I think I would have liked Wull!

Over time, Wull shared with Dad that he had been at the Battle of the Somme. Dad couldn't remember the exact military unit that Wull had served in but it was a Scottish regiment, of which there were several present. Not only had Wull been a soldier there but he was a sniper and spent much of his time crawling around in No-Man's Land, looking for targets on the German side. He was out there on the first day of the battle, one hundred years ago tomorrow, and the crossfire across No-Man's Land was so heavy that, while crawling around on his front, he received two bullet holes through his water bottle (which would have been on his belt or webbing, worn at the back and, so, sticking up more than the rest of his body. There were probably few who had closer shaves that day than "Auld Wull Grant", as Dad often referred to him. He served throughout the Battle of the Somme. He told Dad that, once, he spent three days playing a deadly cat-and-mouse with a German sniper before Wull killed him. Although he returned home after the War, Dad said Wull's body was full of shrapnel from shell blasts out there between the trenches.

I tell Wull's story today, not because it was exceptional. Of course it was exceptional, by the standards of our so-much safer, richer and more comfortable times. There would be countless exceptional stories of bravery, courage in the face of mind-numbing terror, of endurance in the appalling misery of the conditions in the trenches of the Somme, if only those stories had been or could be told. Rather, I tell Wull's story simply to honour the memory of an ordinary Scottish man caught up in the first dramatic waves of 20th Century history, dragged from a presumably hard and rather dangerous life as a Scottish coal miner in the Edwardian era to the battlefields of France, to the first major battle of modern, mechanised war, with tanks and aircraft for the first time, poison gas, trench warfare and who survived the battle and the war despite being a sniper, surely one of the most dangerous of all roles in that hellish trench war. Wull survived all of that, returned home to continue his life as a miner in Ayrshire and eventually retired to live above a pub in the most basic of conditions, whiling away his time sitting in the open air watching birds and chatting. Dad said that Wull passed away sometime in the 1960's, perhaps before I was born in the middle of that decade.

Now my Dad is no longer with us and, as far as I know, the only people who know Wull's story are my brother, sister, mother and me. Maybe he has descendants. I don't know. Maybe there are other old men or women still alive who remember him and his story from evenings spent at the Torranyard in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I don't know. I regret that I have no photo of Wull. I have no idea if his military service record was one of the 2 million or so destroyed by fire during the London Blitz in World War Two. But I know he was my father's friend and we know a little of his story. And now you know a little of his story too.

Thanks to his story, which he shared with Dad, I have known about the Battle of the Somme since I was a very small boy and that there was nothing glorious about it. In one reference given in the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of the Somme, a German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, is quoted as saying:

Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” 

There will be a two minute silence tomorrow morning in the UK to honour those who fought at the Somme 100 years ago. Personally, I will be pausing to remember, as well as all those who fought and died on both sides, William Grant, Auld Wull, and my own Great Grandfather, two men loved and respected by my own father, and what they went through in the trenches of France and Gallipoli.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

A fatbike nightride word picture

Thursday night is fatbike night. My night out on my own. The Scottish summer's late evening sunlit riding opportunities have passed for another year. To ride on a November evening is to gird yourself with onion layers of merino, lycra, Goretex. A headtorch precariously wrapped around the helmet. Mighty bright double beam lights on the handlebars, a veritable pair of arclights to cut the night ahead, and a flashing red bobtail behind. One minute to nine, daughter a-bed, dinner digested, dishes done, I roll down the gravel drive, fat tyres kicking out the stones that the neighbours and I so recently barrowed in and raked out. Pulling out onto the road and thankfully it's quiet at this hour, the tarmac ride a necessary evil to take me to the woods and trails. Four inch wide tyres thrum on the blacktop, fish out of water, not really meant for this environment, impatient for the soft, the wet, the yielding of the off-road world.

Crossing over the motorway bridge, I soar above lorries, vans, cars and even motorbikes (with smaller wheels than mine), then it's down the dip, across the first watercourse of the trip, and up the hill to Cambusbarron church. I look left at the junction, see the house where John Grierson, the father of the documentary, spent his childhood. The man who first turned real stories into reel stories, real to reel. Then it's past the pub (and incredulous voices from the smokers outside the door as they spot the size of my wheels and tyres) and then the primary school as I climb gradually towards the quarry gate, rolling by quiet cul-de-sacs, their houses with softly golden glowing windows. No one is out here except me, this winter evening world a largely indoor one.

As I approach the quarry gate, my lights pick out a constellation of reflections from stacks of stockpiled traffic cones, a shoal of silver flashes that slide left and right as my lights swing back and forth, and then past me in my journey's flow. No one's parked here. It looks like I have the place to myself. As I cross the threshold at the quarry gate, it feels like I'm escaping. But I am surrounded by aliens. Non-native, invasive Japanese knotweed dying back for winter on my right and snowberry to the left, it's crop of gleaming white berries like oyster pearls in the light cast sideways from my bike. And I know the small quarry just up on the left is infested with pernicious alien peri-peri burr, out of my sight for now.

I'm struck by how absolutely still it is tonight. Not a breath of a breeze, nor twitch of a leaf. Only the sound of my tyres on the small gravel of the path and the quiet roll of chain on gears and jockey wheels. And, behind me now, less than a mile back, the noise of many other tyres, the sound of the motorway like an constant low exhaling.

It isn't cold, not even cool but, with conditions this still, it must the light cloud cover that's preventing the temperature from plunging like an inappropriate neckline at a wake. I do see a few stars but even these slip from view for now as I enter the tunnel of trees. My headlights arc back and forth with my increased effort as the path's slope steepens, a little at first, then dramatically. I am forced down the gears, already on the small chain ring at the front but, pleasingly after months of riding nearly every day, still having a couple in reserve on the rear sprocket. This is the only serious climb of the night and I begin to leak a little sweat. I am overdressed for a steep climb but, soon enough, I reach the boulders blocking what was once a road for engined vehicles and, jinking past those obstacles, I reach the flat plateau of gravel into which the hanging valley of the upper quarry opens From here, it will be a pretty steady run down to the quarry plant and access road. As I pedal and freewheel across this dark plain, a moving cone of brightness, gravels crunching underwheel, I see the soft houselights of the hill farms gleaming off to my right, and flashes from headlights on cars negotiating the North Third road's bends, undulations and slopes.

Then... looking around with my headtorch, I see a different light, not illumination but two glowing points of my reflected torch, the eyes of something, I know not what at first but which resolves itself into a roe deer ahead of me, and which slips quickly and silently off to the scrub on the right. It's the first deer I have seen tonight but won't be the last.

The downhill run is pleasant recovery after the climb and, all too soon, after a little weaving to find the path and negotiate more bouldery roadblocks, I pass the tall and currently silent white tower of the batching plant and my wheels glide in relative smoothness onto the access road. During the day, huge trucks may trundle up and down here with dusty plumes and roaring diesel engines but, tonight, there's just me and my bike, its whirring freewheel and the road buzz from my fat tyres. Slipping past the old limekilns on the left now, steep enough downhill for me to need to brake, conscious of the large metal gate ahead, which I need to come down off the saddle to walk the bike past.

Another short steep downhill, now on the North Third road but only until I reach the bend by the river, where our ways will diverge. On the way down, I see a searchbeam of torchlight, obviously handheld from its movements, as someone from one of the farms up the hill goes about their business. Then, I reach the river and peel off left on the bend, across the wee bridge. I look down into the fast-flowing current as I cross, my headtorch a poor illuminator as the water seems to suck in the lightbeam, giving nothing back, an aquatic event horizon.

Off the bridge, I wheel into a huge black cavern of tall trees, and the only real muddy patch of the ride, then out into the open air. The farm track, one of my favourite sections of this ride, offers many possibilities. But not for tonight, the enticing delights of the North Third cliff and wood paths. Rather, my ride takes me straight on down towards the Swanswater Fishery. Before I reach the junction offering such choices, a gleam of eyes picked out ahead by my headtorch  presages the passage across my path of two more roe deer, their crossing rather panicked by my rattling, whirring cone of light. The farm track is dry tonight and the usual mix of hard-packed earth, cobbly stones and hollows, not puddle-filled tonight. It makes for a slightly weaving, slightly downhill run as I try to find the smoothest line in the view allowed by my lights. And it is a pretty smooth ride, the four inch deep tyres playing give and take with holes, rocks, bumps and buffeting from the track. As I reach the first ponds of the fishery, the sound of rushing, gurgling water reaches me with an odd doppler effect as I pass over small streams draining through the site. On summer rides through here, the pond banks are dotted with silent sentinel anglers, in their own bubbles of focus and concentration. Not tonight. The lights in the windows of the scattered houses by the fishery provide the only other signs of human life.

All too quickly, I reach another tarmac road and the occasional four wheel drive flicks by, headlamps blazing and windows dark, heading home into the hills. Again, my time on the road is brief, although here, the closeness of the motorway, less than a couple of hundred metres away provides the dominant soundtrack as I sneak along to connect to the next section of path.

Through a farmyard and past the 'big hoose', the path bends down to the Bannockburn, its presence heard and felt in the dark, rather than seen. As I descend the narrow path, the temperature falls some degrees, into a nearly frosty pocket along the burn side. Glistening dew is not far from freezing, if that sky clears a little more. I need to cross the Bannockburn to reach the next stage of the ride, Tinker's Loan, and roll cautiously across the old, narrow and frankly crumbling stone bridge, not the greatest fun in the dark. Another tunnel of trees and a steady climb up Tinker's Loan, my lights filling the narrow space of the path, hedges and tree'd ceiling. A pair of wood pigeons explode from a tree above me, battering out through the branches, their staccato machine gun wing flaps, the percussion instruments of fear.

Winding steadily up, I cross the road that runs down to Gateside and catch an eyeful of the night-time Forth Valley laid out before me. Streetlights, house lights, floodlights, car headlights, beacons flash on pylons pinprick on the retinas before I dip into the Loan again, downhill now and then a final short climb up to the other end of this narrow and surely ancient way. I can smell cows and see on the right, at path's end, solid darker blocks in the darkness, betrayed by odour. Now it really is all downhill from here as I whizz, woohooing, down the Polmaise Road towards home. My tyres fling off the detritus of the offroad world, a shower of flashes flaring in front of my lights. I reach the motorway again and streetlights and the ride feels like it is already over, so I extend the magic a little longer by cutting through the community wood, scattering rabbits from the pathside verges and rousing a late night dog walker from his quiet thoughts. As we exchange hellos, I realise he's the first person I've seen since I passed the pub and that's the first word I've spoken since leaving the house... And then, I'm home.

What's so special about riding alone and off-road at night? Maybe it wouldn't be your thing but, in reflecting a little on my solo bike trip in the dark last Thursday night, I realised that it put my state of mind in a special place. The description that sprang to mind was... Mindfulness. According to Wikipedia, "Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment" It's all about being in the moment, observing, focussing on the now. And although it was a ride of only 50 minutes or so, not long by typical training ride standards, it felt longer in a good way, a flood of simple observations, awareness of my bike, my body, the environment I was passing through, and no conversation (until I was two minutes from home), leaving me feeling refreshed and relaxed. And all that on top of the physical exercise that was my original motivation.

P.S. What's a fatbike? This is mine!

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Here comes the sun (spots and all)

Hello again world. Long time, no write!I thought it was time I reactivated my blog as there's work to do, thread posts to re-ignite and complete and a world of interest to be writing about again! Where have I been? Well, around the time I last posted, I became a parent  and life became a metaphorical timey-wimey wormhole for my free, available time. Here I am resurfacing on the other side of the wormhole (and what a ride it has been!).

And what has brought me back today? Well, the autumn evening sun tonight attracted me to fix the long lens to my digital SLR and take a few shots as the Sun sank towards the western horizon, as seen from western Stirling in Scotland, UK, thus:

Quite attractive - but wait, what are those dotty, spotty things on the sun?

Yes, looks like sunspots - I've never managed to photograph sunspots before, so I was quite excited!

Sunspots but perhaps you can't quite make them out so...

I went and checked online - there are now some great websites showing the activity on the sun in near-real time. I went to NASA's SOHO site - for their Solar and Heliotrophic Observatory - here - which showed this entry for the sun today:

Sunspot activity for today, 10th September

And with not very much squinting and little need for imagination, you can see two of the larger spots, numbers 2157 and 2158, ringed in the following copy of my photo:


Yippee - now all I need to do is find out how, safely, to take much crisper images of the Sun (and to find out how to make my photos show the colour of the Sun - the actual Sun I was looking at was a deep red - not the yellow colour it looks here). I'm afraid I am a  bit of a lazy point-and-press merchant. I fear I need to read the manual for my SLR.  Anyway, a fine end to a lovely day and one with a bit of added scientific excitement.

And what are sunspots? Read this from Wikipedia.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Signs I Like #32: Christmas 2012 Special

My inexplicable near-six month absence from blogging notwithstanding, I emerge blinking into the dim midwinter gloom to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. This sign found yesterday in Marks and Spencer's as we hung about waiting for the turkeys to be discounted!